Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Knowing When To Cancel

Don’t fly with a known equipment deficiency

DON’T TAKE ANY CHANCES. Taking off in an airplane with a known equipment deficiency can have disastrous, potentially lethal consequences.
The other evening, I got a call from a friend who operates a Piper Navajo for his business. He filled me in on what had happened with a flight from his home airport in the Northeast to Miami, Fla. Four employees traveled with him, and the group was due in Miami for a series of meetings. Thunderstorms had taken over Florida, so he had planned an early dinner stop in Savannah, Ga., to give the storms some time to diminish.

When it was time to depart Savannah, he had trouble getting the left engine started, while the right side fired instantly. My friend was surprised by the difficulty: Both engines had been overhauled recently. This was the first trip after the plane had undergone its annual inspection, and there had been no problem starting earlier in the day. The matter became serious when the left engine quit during its magneto check. The right magneto on the engine was fine, but the left one, with the impulse coupler for starting, was dead. That explained the difficulty getting the engine started—something must have happened during the flight to Savannah.

What to do about the flight to Miami? He had his IFR clearance. He still had one good magneto on the left engine and a perfectly good right engine. He had passengers who were anxious to reach their destination. He had a busy schedule the next day. He felt enthusiastic and energetic about flying, but not about trying to round up a mechanic for troubleshooting that could run well into the night. He was facing external and self-imposed pressures, which can lead a pilot to fly with known deficiencies in equipment.

The decision he made was in line with the decision I’d have expected from him: taxi back to the FBO and find out what’s going on. When the bad magneto was opened up, assorted parts were loose in the case and it was full of metal shavings. He made a decision to abandon the plane in Savannah, pending a replacement magneto and an inspection to see whether anything else might be going on.

With no airline flights or charters available, he and his employees finished the trip by rented car. He took no chances and didn’t become another accident statistic. Others weren’t so lucky...

A single-engine Raytheon (Beech) A36 sustained substantial damage during a forced landing at Pahokee, Fla. The commercial pilot, who had been on a personal flight destined for Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, La., wasn’t injured. The pilot reported that he found no problems during his preflight inspection. Shortly after taking off from West Palm Beach County Airport, the engine began to “surge,” which he reported to ATC; the controller informed the pilot that he was seven miles from the airport. The pilot was able to maintain altitude and land uneventfully.

After examining the engine and the fuel system, the pilot found no problems and departed again. After departure, the landing gear wouldn’t retract. He decided to return to the airport. When the plane was nine miles out (at around 2,000 feet), the engine began losing power. The pilot prepared for a forced landing in a field; he unsuccessfully attempted to restart the engine by switching fuel tanks and turning on the fuel-boost pump. While landing, the landing gear “dug in,” and the plane rotated onto its nose.


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